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Middle East Migration Studies: Roads Travelled and Future Paths

RoundTable X-1, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Over the past two decades, Middle East Studies have become more globalized and transnational. In good part, this has been driven by the work of migration and diaspora scholars whose scholarship has explicitly transgressed the bounded geographies of area studies, traversing national spaces and disciplinary boundaries. Since the beginning of this century, this field has grown dramatically, proliferating in different directions: from social, economic, political, and cultural histories of Syrian migration into the Atlantic worlds of Africa and the Americas to ethnographic and social studies of contemporary displacement within the region, focusing in particular upon the lived experiences of Palestinians and Syrians, and from ethnographies of the labors and transcultural lives of migrants to the region to critical analysis of the humanitarian and security apparatuses forged in response to migration and studies of the contemporary Arab American experience, which attend to distinct forms of cultural expression, political activity, and racialization. A sign of this expansion is the growing number of conferences, workshops, and publications dedicated to the field. Despite these contributions, Middle East migration studies remains a field in formation. This roundtable brings together a range of scholars from different disciplines and at different stages of their careers to take stock and to consider future directions and paths as yet untaken. Is the fact the field lacks a clear focus beyond an interest in human movement of various kinds a good or a bad thing? Does too prescriptive and programmatic an approach constrict possibilities, keeping scholars’ attention trained on a relatively small number of questions and inhibiting the field’s development? Or can a clear set of priorities provide this emergent field with greater coherence, guiding scholars and generating new questions? More broadly, how has the field developed in recent years? and where can it go from here? What are the most promising and intriguing paths as yet untaken? Could the field gain from greater engagement with labor history and the history of capitalism? Or with Black studies, disability studies, and ethnic studies? Or intellectual history, visual studies, and cultural studies? On what grounds can scholars of migration in the Eastern Mediterranean or Western Asia, engage with those working on mobilities and displacements in North Africa or the Gulf? And what can we learn from interdisciplinary dialogue among historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and others?
  • What opportunities does the study of migration and diaspora offer for thinking through race, racism, and racialisation in the Middle East and beyond? There has been growing interest in questions of race among Middle East scholars of late. While scholars such as Sherene Seikaly have built on the pathbreaking work of Eve Troutt Powell, MESA panels and roundtables have spoken to the interest these critical questions generate. Recent work by Nadya Sbaiti, Lara Deeb, and Tsolin Nalbantian, meanwhile, has suggested that critical race studies can inform the study of the region in other ways, offering a novel point of entry into debates around sectarianism and sect-making. Middle East migration studies, I want to suggest, can make a crucial contribution to such discussions. Where anthropologists and sociologists such as Nadine Naber, Sally Howell, Ghassan Hage, John Tofik Karam, and Michael Humphrey have long tackled questions of race and racialisation head-on, historians like Sarah Gualtieri, Camila Pastor, Stacy Fahrenthold, and Devi Mays have offered rich, theoretically sophisticated accounts of the ways that Middle Eastern migrants in Central and North America negotiated questions of racial belonging. From a different direction, emergent scholarship from the likes of Sumayya Kassamali and Anna Reumert has considered the lifeworlds of migrants from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa within the Middle East, exploring racial imaginaries and narratives of racialised difference. In my comments I want to take stock of these various strands, reflecting on the insights offered by this scholarship. How can it help us to understand the ways in which Middle Eastern migrants and migrants within the Middle East have experienced, taken on, resisted and deflected racial discourses and racist practices? How can we bring together scholarship on the Levant and the Gulf with the distinct literature on North African migration and European discourses of race? How can we talk across disciplines, building new understandings and frameworks for scholarship? And what work remains to be done?
  • Far too often we tell stories of migration that are devoid of emotions, emptied of some of the essences of that very human experience. In our hurry to explain the reasons why people leave their homes, we frequently elide the anguish and excitement of reaching such decisions. We do not give these existential matters much space perhaps because of the ephemeral and at times ineffable nature of these sentiments, rendered more elusive by the silences of the archives. Yet they are fundamental to understanding the migratory experience in all of its dimensions, because sentiments inflect every aspect of that journey. Departures are not simply based on a cold calculus of economic, political or social benefits and costs, but an emotionally fraught and articulated decision. Landing in a place on a map is navigated through an ephemeral web of familial connections, communications and friendships that are punctuated by support and betrayals, and their attendant feelings. Building a life in a new physical and cultural space is a journey of worry (and sometimes fear), anticipation and moments of elation, hopes dashed and attained. To capture even a fraction of the histories (and stories) of emotional lives would be to tell a more complete history of migrants. More critically, I will argue, emotions and their history transform migrants from a category at the margins and borders of nations and societies, to individuals whose lives are legible as part of the spectrum of the human experience. The legal, penal and discursive depiction of people who move across boundaries as “migrants,” or any of its sub-categories, renders them immediately as “Other,” not only in the sense of physically and culturally not belonging, but even more so outside the bounds of humanity. As Sylvia Wynter argues, the Western bourgeois conception of the human excludes “a category defined at the global level by refugee/economic migrants stranded outside the gates of the rich countries, [who are]...the postcolonial variant of [Frantz] Fanon’s category of les damnés.” To narrate, then, their lives and histories through the lens of complex emotions is to reclaim their humanity and place them at the heart of the human experience. Part of my presentation on this will be an exploration of how we can interrogate existing archives to unearth these emotions and explore them more fully. This will entail new technologies, but also new approaches.
  • What do we talk about when we talk about migrant labor? In the Middle East, migrant labor has become an umbrella term that indexes workers employed through the contemporary regime of kafala-sponsorship contracts in the Gulf and Lebanon. Rarely do we think of older forms of movement from Africa to the region within the categories of labor migration, even though scholars have documented histories of indentured labor in the Ottoman and Indian Ocean geographies that brought divers to the Gulf in search of pearls, and the imperial connections that brought Lebanese silk farmers across the Atlantic, and Syrian merchants across Africa in search of gold. Others crossed the same oceans and frontiers in search of spiritual guidance, or desires of the heart. What drives people to move across the region today? What might the friendship between a Sudanese butler and an Eritrean Islamic philosopher, who met through the Palestinian solidarity movement in 1970s Beirut, tell us about the overlapping lives of pilgrimage, political liberation and labor that have connected people in the Middle East? In other words, who do we talk about when we talk about migrant labor? What does ‘migrant labor’ tell us about the relations that people build in cities of the region, within and beyond the legal and spatial terms that condition them as temporary? Does it make sense to distinguish, as policy makers and media do, between economic and humanitarian motivations of mobility in a regional context of prolonged conflict and perpetual disaster, where seasonal agrarian workers become permanent refugees? People displaced within the region cross the same borders with migrants displaced by economic violence in Africa, with whom they are pooled into similar conditions of labor and often share housing and living conditions when they arrive in Beirut or Amman. These people do not move in a vacuum; they make kin and connections that return with them or build new paths. If desire, kinship, intimacy, and solidarity are, as I argue, central driving forces for people to move and to survive in conditions of mobility and exile, we need to study the affective life of migration as integral to the economic structures and repercussions of mobility, rather than an add-on we can leave out. How might mapping desires of migration - both imaginal and material - enable a conceptual language of mobility that connects, rather than separates, past and present lives of labor in the region?
  • In my work, I have often argued that cultural production is an important, yet neglected site of the study of migration from/to the Middle East. Cultural texts add an affective dimension to our understanding of population movements and moving populations; in some historical contexts, such as places where archival material is scant, they are our only links to mobile populations. And yet – perhaps understandably – most of the recent scholarly focus on migration in media and cultural studies has focused on the present, and has centered migrant voices and the experience of movement, thereby privileging those with access to contemporary networks of cultural influence, and excluding others. In my intervention, I hope to probe the role of literary analysis in elucidating the lifeworlds of people on the move in the pre-digital Middle East. The tools of literary analysis, and its attunement to formal and affective questions allow us to probe migration narratives in a more nuanced way that can enrich historiographies and geographies of migration. In thinking migration, I also want to ask, perhaps counter-intuitively, what do we stand to learn from reading about the people who move(d) from the perspective of the people who stay(ed)? In doing so, I hope to further animate the conversation about the dynamic processes that are created by movement; and to argue that this dialectic can inform and bring together scholars in migration studies and their colleagues who work in more bounded nation-state settings in ways that will push both fields in new directions.